For the Love of Jasper Contest Redux

Title: Smoked

Summary: When the smoke clears, will a Princess dethrone the King?

Pairing: Alice, Jasper

Rating: T

Word Count: 7,802

DISCLAIMER: Twilight and its inclusive material is copyright to Stephenie Meyer. Original creation, including but not limited to plot and characters, is copyright to the respective authors of each story. No copyright infringement is intended.

-S-

(APOV)

For as long as I can remember, there ain't nothing better than the smoky smell of sweet and tangy pit barbecue on a hot, Mississippi summer day. Or any day, for that matter. Maybe, the fragrant smell of magnolia blossoms in the spring or fresh cut grass. Those are both close seconds.

But barbecue, well, it runs through my veins. Why, when I was ten, Momma said I made some of the best sauce and rubs in all of Mississippi. I reckon she's right, because I have the ribbons to prove it.

You see, my sister, Bella, and me, we've been entering contests for as long as I can remember. It didn't matter which division we entered, whether it was sweet baked goods or something from the garden, we took home all the fair's prize ribbons. And let me tell ya, most people took none too kindly to our winning ways.

Our daddy, Charlie, told us those other people were just jealous. I reckon they were, but it doesn't matter because Bella and I have moved on to bigger and better things.

It took months of persuasion. Bella and I begged Daddy daily to let us tag along for his annual trip up to Memphis. He claimed we'd be in the way, but we swore on a stack of bibles that wouldn't be the case. He finally agreed with Momma's blessing, of course.

I'll never forget that first trip to Memphis or every trip after that. You see, Daddy's a thirty-year, prize-winning Pitmaster, and over the years, he's taught us a thing or two.

So, it was no surprise, to him at least, we would wanna strike out on our own. Thanks to God and Daddy, I'm proud to say, I'm the first female and youngest woman to ever win the Memphis in May World Championship of Barbecue.

Many have dubbed me the "Princess of Barbecue," but I couldn't do it without Bella or our cousin, Rosalie. Together, we have stormed the barbecue competitions in the South and even a few up North in Illinois, but now, I'm interested in a bigger prize.

We are headed this weekend to Houston, Texas for the 26th Annual Boots & Barbecue Showdown. We haven't competed in Texas yet, but I think we're primed to make our debut.

You see, for the past twelve years, one team in particular has smoked the Texas competition: Blood Brothers Barbecue, led by Houston native, Jasper Whitlock. He claims to be the King of Texas Barbecue, which makes me laugh. Because he ain't seen nothing like me and my crew, and we're fixing to dethrone the King.

-S-

"I can't believe we're settin' up directly across from 'em," Bella whispers, as the sun beats down on us.

I wipe the sweat from my brow. "Let me tell you sister, it was no easy feat gettin' this spot," I confirm. "I nearly had to promise my first born, but I think the sayin' is right, "It's good to keep your friends close but your enemies closer," if ya know what I mean."

"Well, the only thing that matters is beatin' 'em," Rosalie shares, as she is busy laying out our space.

I glance his way. "Look at him over there. I think he could strut sittin' down."

"Let's just focus on what got us here. Beatin' him in his hometown will just be icin' on the cake," Rosalie reminds us.

"Boy, he sure is handsome." Bella zeroes in on the Yankee, Edward. Then she shrugs. "All of 'em are handsome, I guess."

Rosalie nods her head in Edward's direction. "I hear that one was raised on concrete."

I add, "Chicago, I think."

Rosalie looks around for a bit and lowers her voice. "He's a chemist or somethin'. Got a degree an' everything."

"The other one..." She looks Emmett's way at the same time he catches her eye and smiles. "He's a firefighter, I heard." Rosalie glances up again to find him still staring in her direction. She gives him a slight smile before returning to her work.

Jasper and his team are real lookers, but my eyes linger on Jasper in particular. I wonder if everyone in Texas is required to wear a cowboy hat and boots. Maybe they're born with them. Jasper has wavy, dirty blond hair underneath his and the most gorgeous baby blue eyes. His cowboy plaid shirt is stretched tightly over his tanned muscles and those Wranglers can't fit an ass any better.

I'm careful not to let him see my interest, as we don't need any distractions. I go back to positioning our smoker and coolers, while Bella is still busy hauling wood.

We're all lost in the tasks at hand when I hear him before I see him.

"Well, lookie here, boys. We've got us some salad spinners for neighbors." Jasper chuckles and reads our sign. "3 Chicks in Charge. In charge of what?" he wonders aloud.

I spin around to face him, careful not to let my face give any indication his words are getting under my skin.

"We've howdied, but we haven't shook." Jasper extends his hand to me while his eyes never leave mine. "Jasper Whitlock, at your service, ma'am. Owner of Blood Brothers Barbecue," he drawls, and his grin exudes the cockiness I expect from him.

I place my small, delicate hand in his rough, larger one.

"It's my pleasure to meet you—" He pauses and waits for my response.

"Alice, sir," I supply, but raise an eyebrow in his direction.

"Alice," Jasper repeats.

He brings the back of my hand to his lips and leaves a soft kiss there.

"Most people come to me." He looks around. "But it seems here I am making my way to you."

"Sir, I'm not most people," I reply, and pull my hand from his.

"Darlin', I can certainly see that."

The three of us are wearing the same Daisy Duke styled uniform with this competition in mind. We're okay with attracting some attention, as long as everyone remembers barbecue is on the menu. Not us.

Jasper's eyes move appreciatively from my face to my gingham-checked, buttoned-up blouse that's been tied to reveal my midriff. He lingers for a while on my ample chest, and I'm sure he catches a glimpse of my black bra. It can be difficult to contain my girls.

I clear my throat to get his attention, but that doesn't stop his appraisal of my extremely short, form-fitting, denim cut-off shorts or my shapely, tanned legs that fit into my very own pair of dusty cowboy boots.

He lets out a whistle. "Darlin', you've got more curves than a barrel of snakes! Be sure to stop by after I win. I'm sure the two of us can paint the town and the front porch, too!" He winks.

I huff at his words. "I wouldn't be so sure, if I were you. Someone else might win this year."

At my statement, he full-on belly laughs. "Miss Alice—" He stops and tries to catch his breath.

Bella and Rosalie are now flanking each side of me with straight faces.

Jasper grins. "I know we just met, but you're a couple sandwiches short of a picnic, Miss Alice." His face becomes more serious. "I always win."

We stare at each other for a few more moments, when Rosalie speaks up.

"I think we're all set here, Alice. Anything else before we get started?"

"Oh, we're gettin' started all right," I tell her, my eyes never leaving Jasper's.

Jasper smiles and tips his hat in my direction. "Ma'am." He turns and returns to check on his own team's work across the way.

"That guy has a lot of nerve comin' over here with an attitude like that," Bella scoffs.

"He probably thinks the sun comes up just to hear him crow," I explain. "Besides, you know what Daddy always says, 'Don't dig up more snakes than you can kill.'"

-S-

Evening settles around the showdown, and there are plenty of folks starting to tend to their fires. The smoky rich smell of a wood fire always makes me feel like I'm home. We have some Muddy Water's tunes playing on a small speaker nearby, and if I didn't know better, I would think I was back in Mississippi with this heat.

I sit in my chair and let my eyes close for a bit, thinking over the next day's plans.

There are over sixty teams here to compete, and I can't wait until it's time to get the meat in the smoker. In the meantime, though, we pack our firebox and get the fire going. This is Rosalie's specialty. There is no one else I trust more with this task than her.

Bella is busy building our blind boxes. These are the boxes we use to turn in our finished products to the judges. She uses a layer of green leaf lettuce strips, then tucks in plenty of curly leaf parsley. It's important to build them tonight and keep them cold, as we won't have any other time to get them ready.

The showdown organizers delivered our meat order to our booth earlier. So, I've worked my magic and trimmed them perfectly, then repacked them in our coolers. Trimming is so important. It's the difference between winning and losing. Daddy swears by it. I made our rubs and sauces ahead of time. So, it's all about keeping the fire maintained at a constant temperature and timing at this point.

There are four main divisions of barbecue to compete tomorrow: brisket, ribs, pork, and chicken. An all-around winner will be announced too, and I'm hoping that'll be me. Plus, the showdown has a few extra categories for sides and desserts.

Bella handles those, while Rosalie will take care of the chicken, which leaves me to the rest. I'm pulled from my thoughts as a couple of familiar looking guys each carrying several beers make their way to our booth.

My wary gaze stays on them until Emmett finally speaks.

"Ma'am." He smiles and nods in my direction. "We thought you might be interested in sharing a beer?" He holds the unopened bottle out to me. "I'm Emmett."

I return his smile and accept the offered beer. "That's quite nice of you, sir. I'm Alice." I glance over at Edward to find him watching Bella.

"Where's the rest of your team?" I wonder.

Edward speaks up, "Jasper volunteered to stay with the fire."

Bella finishes the boxes, puts them in the cooler, and returns to my side, just as Edward offers her a beer.

"Would you like to go for a walk? I'm Edward," he asks Bella.

Bella looks at me wondering if she should accept.

"We're fine. Go. Have fun," I reassure her.

Her smile widens as she leans over to give me a hug. "Thanks."

"I'm Bella, and I'd love to go for a walk with you," she tells him, as I watch her exit the booth and they walk away.

"It sure is a pretty night," Emmett comments, while his eyes never leave Rosalie, who ignores his presence.

"It is. Would you like to sit for a while, Emmett?"

His face lights up. "That would be wonderful, ma'am."

On his way to the seat next to mine, he pauses where Rosalie is working at adding more wood to the fire.

"Ma'am, can I offer you a beer?" He holds out another cold, unopened beer in her direction.

She shrugs him off. "Don't drink," is her only reply, but he continues.

"How about a bottle of water? Working the fire is hot. I can grab you one from our cooler."

"I'm fine," she tells him, as she shows him the bottle she's already drinking and goes back to piling up the wood.

He finally accepts her answer and settles next to me.

"I hear you're from Mississippi?" Emmett inquires.

"Yes sir, a little town called Forks, near Biloxi."

"Your daddy… he's Pitmaster Charlie Swan?" he asks.

I grin. "The very one."

"He's a legend. You're so lucky to have learned from him."

"I am. I just hope I have what it takes to win tomorrow."

"You'll do fine," Emmett reassures.

"Your team is gonna be a tough one to beat."

Emmett snorts. "We've been doing this for a while. Jasper thinks we're the Dream Team of barbecue, but you never know how the day will go."

He goes quiet and watches Rosalie work the fire for a while, as I ponder his words.

I know we aren't a Dream Team by any stretch of the imagination. Rose is a waitress at our local diner, and Bella is a nursing student. I've grown up on barbecue, but it doesn't pay the bills.

I work at the Weber Family Funeral Home, where I essentially am a party planner giving people's loved ones a sometimes-spirited final send off. Death is a tricky thing, but we try to focus on celebrating the life folks lived. I mean, really, who doesn't love a party.

"I think I'm gonna step out for a bit. Sound good, Rose?" I ask.

"Sure," she agrees.

I squeeze Emmett's shoulder as I depart. It looks like he's staying.

Rosalie maybe a tough nut to crack, but I wish him well. Her daddy was a mean, old drunk growing up and that really messes with a kid. I couldn't tell you how many nights she and her momma hid at our house when he was on one of his benders.

I'm extremely protective of her and Bella. They are both younger than I am, and I don't want to see either hurt. Why, growing up, most people thought we were all sisters rather than cousins, but it's our mommas who are sisters.

Bella and I are only half sisters, as we have the same momma, but different fathers. Mine was killed fighting for our country just after I was born. I'm thankful Momma went on to find Charlie, as he's the only daddy I've ever known, and he's a great one.

I polish off my beer and make my way to the area of the competition set up with bathrooms. Once I finish, I head over to our truck to grab our jackets. It looks like it's gonna be a cold night once the sun completely sets.

I walk up on a heated make out session between Bella and Edward who are sitting on our truck's tailgate. Neither hears my approach. So, I drag my feet a little on the gravel, which seems ridiculous, but necessary.

You see, Bella has a thing about privacy. I guess it's from us sharing a room growing up with zero privacy. While it doesn't bother me, she makes a big stink about it. We've had many arguments about me intruding in her life. So, I know my presence here is going to be unwelcome, and I don't need any trouble from her this weekend.

Since dragging my feet doesn't cause them pause, I let loose a fake cough or two. Nothing. So, I try a more direct approach.

"Don't mind me," I say loudly. I reach into the truck, grab our jackets, and slam the door shut. Loudly. At least I've tried to give her a few warnings.

Neither reacts to my presence, so I sigh and walk back toward our booth.

I'm near the Blood Brothers' booth when I overhear Jasper talking to someone.

"I don't know. Mississippi, I suppose," Jasper says.

I can't hear the other person's side of the conversation, but I sure can hear Jasper loud and clear.

"I have great respect for Charlie Swan. I wish I had the pleasure to barbecue with him. But, I'm not worried. Everyone thinks they can beat the King until they hear the results."

There's more laughing, then the other person bids Jasper a, "Goodnight."

I walk past Jasper, when I hear him call out after me.

"Miss Alice!"

I turn and head back toward Jasper.

"Good evenin', Jasper." I give him a slight smile. He looks so good out here with the bit of firelight coming from his smoker and the moonlight overhead.

"Darlin', would you like to come around and see how the pros do it?" He smirks.

My face falls for a bit. "I have some ideas of my own, you know. But sure, let's see what you've got."

He seems happy at my acceptance, and I feel the warmth of his hand on my lower back, as he guides me into his sanctuary.

"I shall give you my VIP tour, sugar," he says and winks.

Jasper's booth is laid out very similar to our arrangement of prep tables and coolers, but he has a massive custom smoker.

"That's quite some smoker, you've got," I tell him in awe. His booth is twice the size of ours to accommodate his smoker.

"Honey, everyone wants a piece of the King. So, tomorrow, I will leave no one unsatisfied." His eyebrows wiggle up and down.

I chuckle. "Is that so?"

"Miss Alice, I'm sure you, like everyone else, will be more than anxious to get my meat in your mouth," he says with a devious grin.

And it's those implied words that immediately sour my mood. Apparently, my face holds nothing back this time, as Jasper's face falls a little with the realization of my distaste for his innuendo. It seems I'm just a piece of meat to him.

"Now, don't go getting your panties in a bunch. We're just having a little fun," he defends, but his tone is condescending.

I step back from Jasper. "My panties are not your concern."

"Oh, but you would like them to be. Right, darlin'?" He winks.

"Goodnight, Jasper." I turn and head back to my booth.

"Alice, you let me know if you need me to tuck you in later," he yells after me.

I turn tail and make a beeline back to our booth. My arrival finds neither Emmett nor Rosalie moved from their positions since my departure.

"That man! Ugh!" I growl and pace under our tent. "He's so—" I can't find the right words or help my attraction to him.

"Why, he'd make a preacher cuss!" I look up to see I have their attention. "Sorry, Emmett, but dealin' with Jasper must be like tryin' to put socks on a rooster!"

Emmett chuckles. "I'll take that as my cue to leave for the evening. It sounds like Jasper's ruffled enough feathers."

"See ya, Emmett," I reply, and throw my exasperated self in a chair.

"Good luck tomorrow, Alice." He looks Rosalie's way and tries to catch her eye. "Rosalie."

Rosalie shrugs him off, then takes a seat next to me. I'm still too riled up, but she pats my hand in understanding.

"You think Bella will be back tonight?" Rosalie wonders.

I remember how lip-locked she and Edward were when I saw them last.

"Doubtful," I conclude, as we both settle in for the long evening ahead.

"Let's hope she's stealin' all their prize winnin' secrets," Rosalie suggests with a mischievous grin.

We both share a laugh at that thought, knowing good and well prize-winning secrets were the last thing on either Bella's or Edward's mind.

-S-

It's still dark as truck-stop coffee when I'm putting our briskets on to smoke. Rosalie is curled up on the cot for a few hours of sleep, and I'm working on my second cup of coffee.

Bella returns several hours later when it's time to put the pork shoulders and ribs on with hair wilder than an acre of snakes. It seems that she and Edward were busy eating supper before they said grace.

I sigh. It's been a while since my last guy, James. He was no good and more slippery than a pocketful of pudding. I'm just glad I walked in on him and Victoria Mae before I was stupid enough to find myself married to him.

I look up at Bella. "You have a good evenin'?"

She grins and looks so happy, as if she's about to burst. "Oh, Alice! I did! He's just amazin'."

"I'm happy for ya, sweetheart," I reassure her. "Are you tired? Or do you think you could haul some more wood in before we wake up Rosalie?"

"I can do it. No problem," Bella agrees.

"Good. Then you can catch a few hours of sleep before the sky starts to lighten up."

I stand and stretch my arms above my head, feeling the fatigue of the overnight settle in my bones.

I glance over at Jasper's booth and find him watching me.

"Mornin'!" he shouts, and holds up his coffee.

I'm not gonna be rude, so I give a head nod in acknowledgement.

He seems encouraged by it, if the grin on his face is anything to go by.

My eyes also follow Edward as he has this silly smile on his face while he talks with Emmett. I'm glad the feeling is mutual.

Daddy's gonna have a field day with that Yankee.

Bella comes back with plenty of wood for the morning, and we wake Rosalie so she can get the chickens ready. Bella lies down on the cot, but I know she won't sleep. She's buzzing from her night with Edward, and I'm gonna need her to start on her sides and desserts soon. However, any rest is good.

-S-

The morning hours fly by too fast. I'm busy putting together my brisket box before I know it. I carry it up to the judges' table, only to run into Jasper doing the same.

"You gotta winner there, darlin'?" He smiles.

I smile back. "I think so," is all I give, because really, does this Mississippi girl have a chance on brisket against all these Texans? If Texas had barbecue commandments, I'm sure the first one would be Thou Shalt Smoke Brisket.

I chuckle to myself and hurry back to our booth, because I know I need to prep our pork shoulder and finish the ribs for judging.

While I work on those, Bella is busy smoking her hand-sized pecan pies and fixing her collard greens. Both are Gran's recipes passed down for generations. It was Bella who decided to smoke the pies rather than bake them. They are mouth-watering delicious, and the pecans get this praline crunch that is just heavenly.

Rosalie is sharing our remaining brisket with all of the showdown attendees. Most of them buy a ticket, which allows them to try any booth. Then some buy a limited ticket, which forces them to choose their favorites.

Our booth is constantly busy and compliments are flying left and right.

I'm turning in our ribs and pork shoulder for judging when I hear they are getting ready to announce the brisket winners over the loudspeaker.

"It's sweet of you to stick around to congratulate me," Jasper says into my ear.

"You know that's not why I'm here," I remind him.

"Third Place: Rub Me Tender."

I hold my breath hoping we have a chance.

"Second Place: Blood Brothers Barbecue."

I look over and see folks shaking hands with Jasper and slapping him on the back. He smiles in my direction.

"First Place: 3 Chicks in Charge."

I barely realize what's happened until Jasper breaks me out of my daze.

"Congratulations, sugar." He leans in and kisses my cheek.

I can't believe it. My brisket won! I've gotta get back to the girls.

"Thanks, Jasper!" I say, as I hurry back to our booth.

The collective squeal when I arrive attracts plenty of attention and compliments about our brisket.

I look over across the way and Emmett gives me a thumbs up.

"Thanks!" I shout, as I go back to sharing our pork shoulder and ribs with the folks waiting in a long line by our booth.

Rosalie preps her chicken for judging with a final mist of apple juice from a spray bottle. It's one of her favorite tricks that doesn't add anything to the taste, but gives the chicken a finishing shine. I have to admit, it looks perfect.

Bella is rushing around getting her macaroni and cheese, collard greens, and baked beans ready to go. Her pies have been out for a while now cooling.

Once Rosalie heads out to submit her chicken for judging, we hear they are gonna announce the winners for the pork competition. I know our shoulder is good, but I'm not sure if it's good enough to win today.

"Third Place: 3 Chicks in Charge."

Oh my goodness! We've placed again.

"Second Place: Pork Belly Bandits."

Rosalie is back and we high-five each other before helping Bella get her trays ready for judging.

"First Place: Blood Brothers Barbecue."

We hear the cheers go up across the way, as I look over and see them congratulating each other.

Bella's sides and pies are ready to go. So, I help her carry everything up to the judges' tables.

While we're gone, Rosalie starts sharing sides and pies to all who are interested, as you don't need a ticket for those.

On our way back to the booth, they start to announce the rib winners.

"Third Place: Rib One Out."

I'm no Jasper, but I know my ribs are good. They are the reason for our win at Memphis in May. So, I keep my fingers crossed.

"Second Place: Blood Brothers Barbecue."

Oh please. Oh please. Oh please. I'm squeezing Bella's hand so tightly.

"First Place: 3 Chicks in Charge."

We both scream at the same time and repeat our excitement upon seeing Rosalie.

Edward and Emmett also happen to be at our booth when we return.

"Congratulations, Alice!" Emmett is first to offer.

Edward is standing there with a pie in hand smiling. "Bella, your pie is so good," he says with a groan.

Emmett adds, "I hear she's quite the expert with wood, too."

We all start laughing so hard while Edward and Bella turn bright red.

The loudspeaker lets us know they will be announcing the chicken winners soon. I have such high hopes for Rosalie.

"Third Place: Blood Brothers Barbecue."

Emmett nods. "Our chicken was good today."

Jasper makes his way in our direction and gives both Edward and Emmett pats on the back. "Congratulations," he tells each of them.

"Second Place: 3 Chicks in Charge."

I turn and look at Rosalie. Her eyes are as big as saucers and her hand covers her mouth while Bella gives her a hug from behind.

"You did it girl!" I tell her proudly, as we do another group hug.

When we finally part, the guys all offer their congratulations.

"First Place: Mad Dawgz Barbecue."

We place in all meat divisions and win two of them. I'm thrilled. What an unbelievable day!

Jasper goes over to their booth and comes back with four beers and two waters, which we all open and down immediately.

I eye Emmett and his water, but he shrugs off my arched eyebrow. "It was hot working the fire today. If we had live hens here, they would have laid hard-boiled eggs!"

I laugh. He's too much.

When the final category winners are announced, Bella takes a third in baked beans and firsts in both collard greens and desserts. We all offer a new round of "congratulations" for the wins.

While we await the announcement of the overall winners, I notice both Edward and Bella, as well as Rosalie and Emmett are having private conversations.

"It's been quite a day," Jasper says, as he stands next to me.

I agree. "How's the King feelin' about now?"

He grins widely. "He's feeling pretty good. If I might be so bold to ask, what are you ladies doing after this?"

"Why Jasper, did you have somethin' in mind?"

"Actually, I do. Are you staying at a hotel tonight?"

"Yes, Daddy's puttin' us up at the Four Seasons here in Houston, before we drive back tomorrow."

Jasper whistles. "He's treating his girls right."

"My daddy always knows how to treat a lady," I reply.

"Well, I want to invite you and the girls out for dinner this evening. My treat."

Jasper is so charming. I know I wanna accept his invitation, but need to chat with Bella and Rosalie.

"Hang on..." I turn toward the others. "Are you two up for dinner this evenin' with these guys?"

"Yes!" they say at the same time, sending us into a fit of laughter.

I turn back to Jasper and smile. "We're game."

"Excellent," he says.

They let us know over the speaker that the overall winners will be announced next and everyone should make their way to the main stage where the judges are waiting.

We all walk together and await the results.

"Third Place: Pork Belly Bandits."

Jasper leans in. "They stole that one."

I smile at his cheesiness, as we watch the team climb onto the stage.

"Second Place: Blood Brothers Barbecue."

We all jump up and down and yell our loudest for the guys, as they make their way up the stairs and onto the stage.

"And finally, you guessed it folks. There's a new King in town. Or should I say Princess. First Place: 3 Chicks in Charge!"

The three of us are all holding each other in a tight hug while jumping up and down and screaming, "We did it!"

We finally climb on stage and receive hugs and congratulations from the teams, judges, and organizers. We pose for numerous photos, and together, we hold one of the biggest trophies I've ever seen. Everything is truly bigger in Texas.

-S-

After we pack the trailer and load up the smoker, we drive to the Four Seasons Hotel.

I call Daddy on the way there, and we all share our day with him. His joy is obvious, and I can hear the pride in his voice. We bid him a good evening and promise to see him when we get back tomorrow.

While most fine hotels wouldn't be so welcoming of our equipment, this one doesn't blink an eye.

My kind of place.

We all take turns showering the day's grime away, then put on our going out clothes.

Around 6:30 p.m., Bella gets a text from Edward saying they are down in the lobby waiting for the winners.

I'm really starting to like that guy.

We make our way downstairs in our form-fitting dresses and high heels feeling refreshed and smelling like a dream.

When the guys see us exit the elevator, Emmett wolf whistles. "Don't all of you clean up nicely!" He's louder than what I'm sure most of these rich folks expect from patrons of this fine establishment.

"Well, thanks, Emmett. You guys don't look too shabby either." I admire how handsome they all look in their suits and ties.

We share hugs and kisses on the cheeks, except for Bella and Edward. They're still lip-locked as I elbow her, and they finally break apart.

"You two are gonna have to turn it down for a while so we can eat. Don't make me find a hose to cool you both off," I warn.

"Everyone ready to get going?" Jasper smiles at me as he points us out front.

We excitedly make our way outside into a warm Texas evening, as a few stars are already starting to shine overhead.

"Where are we goin' this evenin', Jasper?" I ask, as Bella and Edward climb into the back of Jasper's Chevy Suburban.

"Darlin', for you, we're going to Pappas Brothers Steakhouse to celebrate," he states proudly.

Emmett whispers in my ear, "He reserved the private dining room." Emmett waits my reaction with a knowing grin.

My eyebrows move upward at this news, while Rosalie and I climb into the middle section of seats.

Emmett and Jasper help us inside, then close our doors, taking their own seats up front.

I can already hear Bella giggling behind us.

I turn and ask, "Do we need to separate you two?" I tease them both.

Edward speaks up, "No, ma'am! We are on our best behavior back here."

I'm skeptical when I don't see either of their hands, and they go back to whispering and giggling.

I look over at Rosalie, and she rolls her eyes.

It doesn't take long for us to get to the restaurant, and Jasper is handing his keys to the valet as we all file out of the vehicle.

The hostess shows us to the private dining room Jasper reserved. It's dark but gorgeous from the candlelight, giving the room a romantic glow. There are cream-colored flowers in the center of the table and each place setting is a warm combination of browns, golds, and creams.

The guys all help us into our seats, and before we know it, wine is flowing and we're tearing through a couple of those chilled seafood towers while we order salads, steaks, and plenty of sides. I hope I'm able to save room for dessert, as the dessert menu sounds divine.

Bella and Edward are in their own world and Rosalie seems to be warming up to Emmett, which leaves Jasper who is sitting to my right.

"You look beautiful this evening, sugar."

He's such a charmer.

"Thank you, sir," I reply with a touch of sass.

Jasper is wearing an all-black look tonight, which suits him nicely. I can't ever go wrong with my favorite little black dress and strappy heels, so we match.

He moves his arm across the back of my chair. "Tell me, Miss Alice, other than barbecue, what else holds your interest?"

Our salads arrive, and I nibble on mine, while thinking of what to share with Jasper.

"Let's see. I love my family and friends. So, I spend as much time with them as possible."

Jasper sips on his wine and nods. "What else?"

"I love goin' to church."

"Do you sing in the choir?" he asks.

"No, I'm not much of a singer," I reveal. "However, one of my favorite things to do is sittin' on our porch swing with a glass of sweet tea an' watchin' the world go by."

"Sounds perfect."

I think for a minute. "Tailgatin' is always a favorite."

He laughs. "Who doesn't love a party?"

"And I guess, I'm a big fan of music, especially Blues."

"Are you an Elvis fan?" he asks with his best Elvis impersonation, which makes me laugh.

"Yes. He's a Mississippi boy, you know. Now, it's your turn. Tell me about Jasper Whitlock, King of Texas Barbecue." I sip my wine, waiting for his response.

Servers bring our entrees to our table and everything looks delicious. We dig in and continue our conversation.

"Hmmm, I also love spending time with family and friends. I attend church regularly, but only to keep my momma happy," he says with a sneaky grin.

"Sounds like someone's a momma's boy," I tease.

"May-be," he draws out. "I like sweet tea too, but one of my favorite things to do is take road trips. You know, just hop in, and drive to see some obscure thing like the guy's house made entirely of beer cans, all the while living off the worst possible gas station eats."

"Let me guess. You're a frozen burrito kind of guy. Or maybe it's those frosted hand pies or circus peanuts you can't turn down."

It's now Jasper who's chuckling with delight. "How did you know?"

"I can just tell." I giggle because I imagine a road trip with Jasper would be fun. "What else?"

"I also enjoy spending time outdoors, but more specifically, I like to hike and camp out under the stars."

"Hikin' and campin' aren't things I've ever wanted to do."

"Well, maybe you just need the right person for a trip like that," he says, but I know what he's getting at.

"Jasper, you don't seem like a guy who would be hurtin' for female companionship. This might be too personal, but do you have a girlfriend or significant other?"

The hand of his arm that's draped across the back of my chair gently rubs my shoulder, as he looks into my eyes. "Sugar, I wouldn't be here with you if I did. There's no one else. How about you? Is there somebody waiting for you back in Mississippi?"

I shake my head. "No. Not for a long time. Bella's always tellin' me to get back on the horse and put myself out there. But, it's scary, you know."

I glance over to my left to look at Bella, but she and Edward aren't there.

I look back at Jasper. "Where are those two?" I point at their empty chairs.

Jasper shrugs. "I have no idea."

Rosalie answers. "They went to the bathroom about ten minutes ago."

I'm not sure what's more unsettling, that they're gone or that I didn't even notice their departure being all wrapped up with my own conversation with Jasper.

"Should we go check on them?" I wonder.

"I'm sure they're fine," Emmett reassures, as I hear my phone buzz in my purse.

I pull it out to find a text from Bella, telling me Edward and her are taking a taxi and going back to his place. I tell her to be safe. She replies she will see us back at the hotel in the morning.

"Well, I guess that's that. Bella and Edward are headed back to his place." I turn to Jasper. "Where does he live?"

"Not too far from here. She will be fine. Edward will be a perfect gentleman."

"It's not Bella I'm worried about." I give him a smirk of my own.

"Then there were four," Emmett jokes.

We finish our meals and our server asks if we have room for dessert.

Rosalie speaks up. "None for me. I'm stuffed."

Emmett agrees. "I think we might go for a walk."

I look at Rosalie and she smiles. "Good?" I ask.

"Definitely. Good. We won't be gone long. Enjoy dessert," she says suggestively.

Emmett stands and helps Rosalie up from her chair. I watch them leave our secluded little dining room as he guides her toward the exit.

I look over at Jasper who is sitting closer than I remember and chuckle. "Then there were two."

"My favorite two," he replies, and leans in softly, brushing his lips against mine. I respond with a gentle ease and we share a few, sweet, delicate kisses while his right hand rubs my knee.

He breaks away for a moment. "Sweetheart, did you want dessert?" he asks.

How can he think about dessert at a time like this?

He pulls away a little farther, causing my half-lidded eyes to open a bit wider.

"Uh…" I'm lost and searching for the right answer. "Yes?" It sounds more like a question than an answer.

Suddenly, a server appears in the doorway.

Jasper orders. His eyes never leaving mine. "We will have one slice of chocolate cake with one spoon, please."

"I thought your momma would have taught you better than that," I tease.

"Don't worry, sugar. I intend on sharing."

"And how do you know I like chocolate? Maybe I'm one of those people that can't stand it." I don't let him off the hook for ordering without asking me first.

"Do you like chocolate?" Jasper's eyes twinkle in the candlelight, and I can't help but be swept up in this moment with him.

I finally concede. "I might."

Our cake arrives and he feeds me spoonfuls of the most decadent chocolate cake I've ever had.

It doesn't take us long to finish. "That was delicious," I decide with a lick of my lips.

He leans in and places his lips on mine. His kisses are such a delicious mix of chocolate and Jasper, a taste I find myself craving. Jasper's hand on my knee starts to rub my leg gently, working his way up my thigh. His lips leave mine, and I feel the delicious rub from the scruff of his whiskers as he makes a trail to my ear.

"Rosalie and Emmett should be back shortly. Are you ready to go?" he whispers.

Even though I'm sad to conclude our dinner together. He's right. Momma didn't raise me to act like this in a restaurant. Private dining room or not.

I nod in agreement, then Jasper settles our bill.

We make our way through the restaurant and out the main doors. I'm highly aware of Jasper's hand on the small of my lower back. Actually, he hasn't stopped touching me this entire evening.

"It's so beautiful tonight." I stare up at the perfect starlit sky.

Jasper hands over his valet ticket to the attendant. "It sure is."

I look over to find him staring at me.

"The sky, Jasper. I'm talking about the sky."

"I'm sure it's beautiful, too."

I smile at his compliment. Movement past his shoulder draws my attention, as I see Emmett and Rosalie walking toward us, hand in hand.

"Way to go, Emmett," I whisper to myself, as Jasper's hand finds mine and he gives me a gentle squeeze.

I smile in Jasper's direction.

"Are y'all ready to call it a night?" I ask. "Because I'm exhausted and can't wait to try out our bed at the hotel. From what I could tell, it's gonna feel like sleepin' on a cloud."

Rosalie responds, "I think we're ready to go back, but we are gonna go sit in the hot tub for a while. My muscles are shot."

The valet pulls up, and we all find our seats in Jasper's vehicle with Rosalie and Emmett sitting together in the middle seats, so I ride shotgun up front with Jasper.

As soon as we are all settled, Jasper goes back to holding my hand while he drives us to the hotel.

A thought occurs to me. I turn in my seat and ask, "Emmett, do we need to stop by your place and pick you up some swimmin' trunks?"

He gets a devious little grin. "I appreciate your interest..." He wiggles his eyebrows up and down. "But, I'm all good."

Rosalie lets out a snort and quickly covers her mouth.

Okay. I don't want to know.

I look back outside my window and see our hotel in the distance. I wonder what kind of expectations Jasper has at this point in our evening.

I was serious about sleeping. I'm exhausted.

Jasper pulls into the entrance, then proceeds up next to the main doors.

Emmett opens the door. "Don't wait up for me," he tells Jasper, and helps Rosalie step out onto the curb.

Jasper chuckles. "No problem. Goodnight."

Emmett slams the door shut and waves at us before entering the hotel with Rosalie by his side.

I turn and look at Jasper. "He—"

"Don't worry. He's just telling me he will take a taxi home when they end their night together."

I know Jasper said not to, but I'm still going to worry. Rosalie may seem tough on the outside, but I know the cracks below the surface. They are deep, and it's taken a lot of glue and spackle to put her back together.

Jasper pulls me from my thoughts. "Alice, thank you for accepting my dinner invitation this evening." He brings my hand he's still holding to his lips and leaves a soft kiss on the back as I watch his movements.

I'm dazed for a moment, because sometimes he does things that are just so unexpected, it leaves me totally off guard. I wonder if I can get my brain to start working again.

"Thanks for askin' us," I say, a little softer than I intended.

He leans in my direction as I hear the leather seat groan with his actions. He puts his fingers under my chin and guides me toward him. I move easily because he's cast this spell over me I can't fight.

"I had a great time tonight, Alice." He moves closer, his eyes dancing from my eyes to my lips, until we are almost touching.

"Jasper—" I'm cut off when his lips meet mine with purpose. There's nothing soft or tentative about this kiss. It is sure and demanding as his fingers thread through the back of my hair holding my head to him.

This is the kind of kiss you feel everywhere. One full of passion and promise. The kind you never want to end.

Unfortunately, it does end, far too soon for my liking.

And it occurs to me; maybe I don't want this to end. Or Jasper to leave. I'm about to invite Jasper upstairs when he speaks up.

"It's been a long day, Alice. I would invite myself up to tuck you in, but I know I would have trouble leaving," he says with a twinkle in his eye. "It's best we not tempt fate, as I only have so much willpower. So, I think it's best we call it a night from right here." He taps on the steering wheel.

I'm disappointed our time here is ending, but what can I say?

"I understand," I say, and squeeze his hand. "Distance can be difficult on relationships. Me in Mississippi and you in Texas."

I can't help myself, and the words are out of my mouth before I can stop them. I extend my own invitation. "If ever you find yourself in my neck of the woods, make sure you look me up, an' I can treat you to some barbecue that will knock your socks off."

Jasper's smile widens. "Princess, you don't need to knock my socks off. Just ask and I'll be happy to remove them myself or any other articles of clothing you desire," he says, then gives me a wink.

I lean over and give him a final kiss on his whiskered cheek then go to open my door.

"Wait!" Jasper stops me and gets out of his side to come help me out of mine.

Once I'm safely on the curb, I try to figure out what to say.

"Well, the invitation is yours. You never know, I might just be Queen by the time you actually make it to Mississippi," I tease.

He grins. "Darlin', not if I can help it."

He leaves one more memorable kiss on my lips. "Night, Alice. It was a real pleasure."

Jasper rounds the front of his vehicle and climbs back inside. Once settled, he tips his imaginary hat in my direction.

"Goodbye, Jasper," I say, even though he can't hear me.

And as I watch him drive off into the dark night, I can't help but wonder if it's possible or even dare to hope I will see my King again someday.